Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Should Legal Penalties for Research Misconduct be Similar to Those for Fraud?

Research misconduct (when research is falsified or plagiarized) has historically been dealt with internally, but Richard Smith thinks that should change. In The New Scientist, Smith argues that “Research misconduct degrades trust in science and causes real-world harm. As such, it should be a crime akin to fraud.” False research essentially causes people to believe in something that is incorrect, which can affect their actions—not unlike the way that financial statement fraud can change people’s investment decisions. Smith gives several reasons why research misconduct should be illegal and discusses how it should be treated in our society.

There are three key reasons behind Smith’s argument as to why research misconduct should be regarded as fraud. First, research grants are awarded for people to do honest research. If those funds are used for something other than honest research (i.e., research misconduct), then it is the same as committing financial fraud. Second, the world of academia and research facilities are not trained to run a justice system, whereas the criminal justice system was designed and established to gather evidence, weigh the evidence, and then determine whether a crime was committed. It therefore makes sense to leave the task of determining whether something is a crime or not in the hands of those who are trained at doing so. Finally, Smith contends that the academic community has failed at dealing with research misconduct and that a change is therefore needed. See this article for a recent, on-going example of research misconduct that led to criminal behavior.

Although Smith believes research misconduct should be treated as a type of fraud, he agrees that there are times when an honest mistake causes research to be incorrect. For these cases he acknowledges that not all minor misconducts should be treated as a crime. However, when the misconduct is intentional, criminal prosecution should be enforced. Fraud involves intentionally misleading others; in this sense, research misconduct is very similar to any other form of fraud. The consequences can be significant too; not only does research misconduct cause people to lose trust in scientific research, but it can also lead people to make costly financial mistakes. When research misconduct involves medical science, it can even lead to health issues in society. For example, in 1998 Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet which suggested that a certain vaccine was a cause of autism. The idea went viral and the amount of childhood vaccinations drastically decreased, leading to outbreaks of measles and other diseases. The claims in Wakefield’s paper were eventually proven false and The Lancet retracted the paper; however, it was too late for many children who had already suffered needlessly through preventable diseases.

While innocent mistakes can happen and occasionally research is proven to be incorrect, intentional research misconduct can have a serious impact on people’s actions. Because of the potentially damaging effects, Smith argues that such misconduct is just as serious as financial statement fraud and should be treated with the same severity, including punishment through the criminal justice system. There are many in the financial community who agree with his argument. Do you think research misconduct should be regarded and punished the same as financial fraud?

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